Why are there attempts to erase Black women’s role in history?

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OSCAR BLAYTON

One of my favorite uncles, Uncle Buck, served in World War II with the Red Ball Express.  The “Red Ball” was a heroic transportation unit that was Gen. George Patton’s lifeline for crucial supplies during the Third Army’s push against the Nazis in 1944.  In 1952, Hollywood made a film about their exploits.  But while the Red Ball was a predominantly Black unit, their story was told in a film that used almost all White actors. Had it not been for my Uncle Buck, I may never have known the true history of this heroic, predominantly African American outfit.

American popular culture has a way of erasing or diminishing the presence of African Americans from this country’s history.  Perhaps the Red Ball’s story was whitewashed because the true story could not be told without relating how the Black G.I.s suffered under racial segregation and unfair conditions spawned by notions of White supremacy in the U.S. military.

The facts of a nation’s history do not flow like the waters of a serene river.  They are churned, and tumble and roil about in conjunction with fiction to create a national myth that becomes the narrative of the dominant culture.

Currently, two historic events are being characterized in a manner that erases the significant contributions of Black women.  The #MeToo Movement is being recast in the national narrative to fit into a more comfortable version of U.S. history.  A seminal moment within this movement was when white celebrities began to use the hashtag to make people aware of the extent of sexual abuse suffered by women in this country.  But this moment came 10 years after the movement was begun by a Black woman, Tarana Burke.

After mostly White celebrities began to use the hashtag, Time magazine chose as its 2017 “Person of the Year” the women who participated in the #MeToo Movement, but elected to identify them mainly as the “Silence Breakers” and largely omitting the fact that they are a part of the #MeToo Movement.  This distortion by the nation’s premier news magazine possibly has created another seminal moment in the movement by “twisting” its identity and creating a course change in the flow of history.

It is not being overly sensitive to ask why Time magazine chose to modify the identity of the movement by placing the “Silence Breakers” veil over the #MeToo Movement.  This Movement has an identity.  Calling it out of its name, distorts that identity.

Popular culture is the forerunner of historical narrative in much the same way that newspapers are the forerunners of history books. When historians of the next century research original source material on the movement that brought about a greater national awareness of sexual abuse, they may only view this movement through the distorted lens of Time magazine that diminishes the importance of people of color.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor of law at Columbia Law School and the University of California, Los Angeles and co-founder of the African American Policy Forum, initiated the #SayHerName Movement that seeks to prevent the erasure of women of color from the narrative of unjust police violence.  Her admonitions about the dangers of allowing the erasure of women of color from the national narrative hold true for all aspects of American life, not just injustices carried out by “law enforcement” officials.

Even when women of color are held up as heroes, the compliments tend to be delivered with the back of the hand.

Roy Moore’s defeat in Alabama for a U.S. Senate seat was due in large part by the determination and hard work of Black women.  But the narrative was often rounded out to portray Black women as two-dimensional cut-outs.

Deneen Brown, a Black woman, needed to write a commentary in the Washington Post to remind America that Black women did not just recently pop up out of the ground to head to the polls and vote in the Alabama Senate race.  They have fought against injustice in that state for so many years, it seems like eons.  And the fight has been carried on largely without the help of most white women in that state.

Another Black woman, Angela Peoples, penned a commentary for the New York Times schooling those who consider themselves allies of Black women to not just thank them for saving Alabama (and America) but to follow their lead.  Summing up, Peoples wrote “[W]e don’t need thanks — we need you to get out of the way and follow our lead.’

Black women are moving this country in the direction that it needs to go, despite the push back engendered by notions of White supremacy – notions that often are buried deep within the souls of our white friends who see themselves as our allies.    Even so, the odds are that if we – Black men and Black women – do not demand accurate historical narratives, the contributions of Black women will again become but a faint memory.  Uncelebrated and unrecounted.  Such is the custom of America.

So now, Black folk must say “Enough!”  For far too long we have been invited to join in the labors necessary to build this nation, but we are seldom invited to the party when the work is done.  When the taste of fear over the possibility of a Senator Roy Moore is no longer remembered, we do not want this nation to return to discounting the importance of Black voters and our concerns.  When the moral compass of the nation finally points principally in the direction of eradicating sexual harassment, we do not want to forget that Tarana Burke, a Black woman, started the ball rolling 10 years before Time magazine took notice.  Black folk contribute greatly to this country, and it is time we demand the proper respect for that.  We can begin by demanding that Black women be appropriately and strategically centered in both this nation’s politics and in its struggle for gender equality.

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